Keeping your blood pressure under control is one of the most important health commitments you can make. But unlike other health concerns, which announce themselves with symptoms you can easily detect on your own, high blood pressure (hypertension) can fly under your radar until damage is done. It can silently thicken and harden artery walls and damage blood vessels, finally giving rise to complications such as aneurysms, stroke and the number one cause of death in America, heart disease.
It’s up to you to keep tabs on your blood pressure and to adopt some simple but effective management strategies that can help prevent your numbers from reaching—or staying in—dangerous territory.
Understanding Blood Pressure Readings
Blood pressure—the force of blood against the walls of your arteries—is determined using two measurements. Systolic (the top number) measures the pressure in the arteries as the heart contracts (beats). Diastolic (the bottom number) measures the pressure between beats, when the heart is relaxed and filling with blood. When those numbers are high, it suggests the heart is working too hard to pump blood throughout the body.
Normal blood pressure is anything lower than 120/80 mmHg. Doctors start to worry about prehypertension (elevated blood pressure) when your reading is above that, and they diagnose high blood pressure when a reading hits or exceeds 140/90 mmHg.
Strategies to Control Blood Pressure
Though some people may need more a more aggressive plan to control blood pressure that is already high, these simple strategies may help you reduce it or keep it a healthy level.
- Get it checked yearly. If you haven’t already done so, book a physical, where your blood pressure will be measured. Your physician can compare your numbers over time—and catch any problems early on. If you have a family history or personal history of possible high blood pressure or pre-hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease, you should get checked at every doctor’s visit.
- Get to a healthy weight. The more fat pushes on your kidneys, the organs primarily responsible for regulating blood pressure, the more work it takes to move blood around your body—which means extra strain on your heart. If your body mass index (BMI) is 27 or greater or you have excess abdominal fat (a waist measurement of 35 inches or greater in women, or 40 inches or greater in men), you’re more likely to develop high blood pressure as well as diabetes, increased blood lipid levels and coronary heart disease.
- Get moving. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease resting heart rate, which can decrease blood pressure. Brisk walking, cycling and swimming are just a few of the activities you can take up to maintain healthy blood pressure. Aim for at least four 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions each week.
- Live anger- and stress-free. The idea that something gets you so mad your “blood boils” isn’t far from the truth. Periods of stress and anger activate your body’s fight or flight response: Stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, speed up your heart rate and breathing while raising your blood pressure as your blood vessels constrict. And if this persists over time, chronic high blood pressure can occur. You can minimize stress and anger by managing your time, setting realistic goals for what you can accomplish each day, taking time for yourself and practicing relaxation techniques.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure and make it more difficult to treat hypertension. Those who have high blood pressure should limit their daily alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day for men (not to exceed 14 per week) and one drink per day for women (seven per week). One drink equals one and a half ounces of liquor, five ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.
- Limit your salt intake. Sodium causes your body to hold onto extra water so it can be excreted. This increases blood volume, which taxes your heart and blood vessels as they work harder to pump the extra blood around your body. The end result? Higher blood pressure. Try to limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day; do not exceed 1,500 mg if you are age 51 or older, already have high blood pressure or are black. Sodium is found in table salt and many foods, especially those that are processed, so be sure to check nutrition labels. Try herbs and spices to flavor meals instead of reaching for the salt shaker.
- Snack on potassium-rich foods. You can help keep your blood pressure in a health range by skipping chips and dip and instead noshing on a banana, dried fruit or even a baked potato. Those foods are good soruces of potassium, which protects against high blood pressure by helping the body excrete sodium. (Some medical conditions, such as kidney disease, may require you to limit the amount of potassium in your diet, so be sure to talk with your doctor.)
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking decreases the amount of oxygen flowing to the heart, damages arterial cells and increases heart rate and blood pressure. If you’ve tried to quit before and need some help, you’re not alone. Your doctor and local health department are good resources for information on smoking cessation programs and support groups in your area. There are also medications and other smoking cessation aids that may help you quit smoking.
- Consider medication. Sometimes lifestyle changes aren’t enough to prevent or control high blood pressure, in which case—depending on your blood pressure readings, other risk factors and blood pressure-related conditions—your doctor may decide to give you a prescription to help reach your blood pressure goal.
- Follow-up with your health care team. If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it’s important to work closely with your team of doctors, nurses and other health care providers. Your doctor may want to see you regularly (every one to four weeks) to ensure that your blood pressure is going down and that you’re not experiencing any side effects of hypertension. He may also want you to monitor your blood pressure at home and keep a record of your blood pressure at different times of the day.